The Stress Process Model: Some Family-Level Considerations

  • Melissa A. Milkie


Consider an urban neighborhood, where houses and apartment buildings dot the landscape in a bustling community. In one home, we find a wife who has recently taken on additional paid work due to her husband’s layoff. Across the street, family members feel continual strain from the “second shift” of caring for two young children in combination with two demanding full-time professional jobs. They are considering what to do, because in the words of the father, “It’s not working for us.” A third home contains what others regard as a “shattered” family, suffering from the tragedy of a teenager killed in a drunk-driving accident two years back. The next block down, family members decide that in order to keep a youngster from potential trouble with his peers, he will be sent to live with an aunt in the summer, where he will take a job and contribute income to the family. Peering into another home, we find a single woman living alone, tending to her aging mother across town, negotiating a network of care comprised of siblings and the mother’s friends. She considers the costs, financial and emotional, of persuading her mother to leave her lifelong residence in order to receive more extended care than the daughter’s network can provide. The people in this neighborhood exhibit varying degrees of distress, but to understand how they are negotiating their difficulties, appreciating individuals as variably enmeshed in family systems can extend our understanding of the stress process.

Complex threads weave family members together to their fates, good and bad, and tie together their abilities to marshal resources to abate stressors. Although families are made up of individuals who are growing and changing in their roles, relationships, and personal development at various rates, irreplaceable, often very long-term bonds with family members bind each to the well-being of the whole unit (Menaghan 1997; Pearlin and Turner 1987). Moreover, the family unit may take on unique significance in societies in which families are ideologically revered yet provided with few governmental supports. Indeed, most people consider the family to be the center of their lives, physically, and/or emotionally “coming home” to the same exact people each day for long periods of time (Turner 1970).

In this paper, I discuss the importance of extending Pearlin and colleagues’ stress process model (Pearlin 1999; Pearlin et al. 1981) to the family level, incorporating knowledge from family stress theories within sociology and other disciplines. Using the key components of the stress process model as an organizational frame, I first address: What are family-level stressors? How can certain “objective” events or conditions be family-level stressors for some and individual stressors for others? Second, I consider coping, social support, and even mastery at the family level. I then describe some potential ways to understand outcomes when examining family-level stress processes, and address the fundamental importance of social and economic statuses for considering family stress processes. Although stress processes occurring at the individual level and at the family level may be productively viewed as existing in layers (Wheaton 1999) or along a continuum, I generally discuss these two levels as conceptually distinct. Conger and Elder’s (1994) note regarding how stress initiates change in the “chemistry and matrix of family-based interdependent lives” underscores the complexities of assessing these levels of analysis in the stress process.


Family Level Stress Transfer Family Unit Family Stress Stress Process 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I thank Bill Avison, Alex Bierman, and Nathan Jurgenson for comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of MarylandCollege ParkUSA

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